Jill MacKenzie. Writer. Reader. Meanderer.
So, remember that time I promised I was going to have other authors guest blog from time to time? See? I wasn't lying about that. Here's Rebecca Christiansen talking about the heartbreaking (and brave! So brave!) story behind her novel, Maybe In Paris. You guys, this is one you won't want to miss.
My YA debut novel, MAYBE IN PARIS (Sky Pony Press, June 20 2017), begins with an emotional bang. In the opening pages, the main character, eighteen-year-old Keira, is woken in the pre-dawn hours after her senior prom by a commotion in her house. She lies awake and listens as her stepdad shouts her brother’s name, and her mother speaks to a 911 operator. She’s frozen, too afraid to get up and find out what really happened. She stays in her room until a siren fades away into the morning, relishing her ignorance while she still can. She knows something awful has happened.
When she finally gets up the courage to leave her room, she finds out that her younger brother, sixteen-year-old Levi, tried to take his own life.
This happened to me, almost exactly. I was the girl huddled, terrified, in her room, listening to her world change outside her door. I had to venture out and use the phone to call our workplace—my brother and I worked at the same fast food restaurant—to tell them he wouldn’t be coming into work that morning. I ended up crying on the phone as I tried to find the words to tell my manager, while a female police officer looked on. She stood in my living room, I guess there to help my parents—I actually have no idea what she was doing there. I had seen her around town before, though, in the drive-thru at my work. She smiled at me awkwardly as I hung up the phone and stood there in my nightgown. I’m sure she meant to be comforting, but her smile jarred me enough that I still remember it, six years later.
My brother, who was about fifteen at the time, spent time in hospital and started a lot of therapy and seeing a lot of different doctors. Our eyes started to open to the problems he had had his whole life that we had been blind to. His quirks, his eccentricities that he had had his whole life? We realized that they were actually symptoms. We learned that he was on the autism spectrum. We learned that he could have early symptoms of schizophrenia, and could be prone to psychosis. It was eye-opening to say the least. In learning more about my brother’s health, I realized I enjoyed the bliss of ignorance—the less I knew about painful things, the better I felt. That ignorance might feel good, but it isn’t practical and it doesn’t help my brother.
I was an adult during this time—I believe I was twenty years old when my brother’s problems came to a head. I had my struggles in becoming an educated, aware, proactive sister… but, like a true YA writer, I started to think about how Younger Me would have been a much crappier sister to my brother. I started wondering how Younger Me—boy-crazy, anxious, Paris-obsessed—would have dealt with these events.
So I wrote that story. I had always wanted to write a travel story inspired by the trip I took to Paris with my school when I was fifteen, so I merged the two ideas. I wanted to write a story about a brother and sister with a complicated relationship, one full of laughter and inside jokes, but also one that’s contentious and full of clashes. I wanted to write a character on the autism spectrum who broke the mold on what we usually see from that type of character. I wanted to write a character like my brother: crass, sarcastic, whip-smart but naive. A freethinker, with some opinions that grind Keira’s gears, but with an unwillingness to compromise his beliefs just to please others. I wanted to write about the feeling of fierceness that wells up inside me when I look at my brother: the desire to protect him at all costs, the urge to put myself between him and all harm. I wanted to write about the things that happen between Keira and Levi that hurt to even think about, the little betrayals and later-regretted words.
I also wanted to write about a character who doesn’t have a neat and tidy mental health diagnosis. My brother wasn’t recognized as being on the autism spectrum, wasn’t recognized as having mental illness, until it was almost too late. To this day, he doesn’t have a concrete diagnosis. Everything is still in flux. It’s common for young peoples’ mental health to be uncertain, unlabelled, and for the lines between mental illnesses to be blurred—a lot more common than a lot of media would have us think. I wanted to write a character who isn’t just a list of symptoms, a specific mental illness personified. Levi is a human, first and foremost, with a myriad of personality traits both symptomatic and not. He and his health are a work in progress, and I wanted to show that.
My brother is doing pretty well now. He’s twenty-two years old, on medication, on disability assistance and under my parents’ legal custody. His life is stable and calm, and thankfully undramatic. I’m not the kind of writer who maps out what happens to my characters after I’ve typed “The End,” but I hope the rest of Levi’s life is as mundane and safe as my brother’s. Whatever happens to him, just like my brother, I know he’ll have his big sister next to him.
*Rebecca Christiansen tried to study creative writing at a university, but kept skipping classes to write YA novels in the library, so she decided to pursue that instead. She loves boy bands and diet soda and suffers from incurable wanderlust. Rebecca lives with her boyfriend in a house packed full of books in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.